The Snowball Derby is by far the biggest pavement short track race there is. It’s the race that every Super Late Model driver dreams of winning. Having your name placed on the Tom Dawson trophy is something that only a select few drivers can say they’ve achieved. But for a few years, the Snowball Derby had a little bit more meaning to some drivers because a championship was on the line.
In 1989, the All Pro Super Series crowned a champion at the Snowball Derby. That champion also earned Rookie of the Year honors. That driver was Joe Nemechek.
The man known as “Front Row Joe” didn’t finish at the very front of the field on a cold Sunday in early December in Pensacola, FL but his seventh-place finish was enough to clinch the championship.
“I thought we ran pretty darn good in that race,” Nemechek began. “It’s so hard to remember back. I can remember when Billy Bigley, we got in a wreck and Billy Bigley ended up on my roof. His car was sitting perfectly on top of my car. I know we won the championship in ’89; it’s just hard to remember a lot of stuff about it.
“I know my crew that I had there at the time. We had a very small crew, there was only like four guys that came with me to that race. If I’m not mistaken, I think Donnie Allison actually showed up at that race because he was going to help me with my Busch car the following year. He was there spectating and doing what he could do to help.”
Rick Crawford was chasing Nemechek in the points standings entering the 1989 Snowball Derby. The Florida racer won the race that day, his one and only triumph at the Derby, but it wasn’t enough to unseat Nemechek at the top of the standings.
“I do remember that. We had to finish seventh or better or something like that,” Nemechek stated. “I know it was going to be close and Rick had to do everything he could to win.”
Like it is now, Five Flags Speedway was always a tough track for race car drivers and teams to master. With a tough race track and tough competition, being able to clinch a championship at the Snowball Derby meant a lot.
“Pensacola, I want to say it’s still the same asphalt it was back then. It was a really, really tough race track back then. It would just chew the tires up and you had to be smart about how you raced,” Nemechek explained. “I can’t remember what they had for tire allotment back then but we were racing against Jeff Purvis running James Finch’s car, Dave Mader, I’m trying to think of the other big guys. All of the big guys back from that era that were king dogs, everybody was at that race. It was a tough race just to make that race, but running for a championship you have to be smart. Believe me, we’re trying to go as hard as we can all of the time and our objective was to win that race or to win the championship and we were successful.”
Nemechek’s 1989 championship broke up the Jody Ridley show that dominated the final years of the All Pro Super Series. Ridley won three of the last four All Pro championships. The only year he didn’t win from 1987 to 1990 was the year Nemechek won in ’89. Ridley finished 38th out of the 41 starters that day.
Joe Nemechek only raced in two Snowball Derby’s, per 51’s The Third Turn. His seventh-place championship-clinching run in 1989 would be his last as a driver, but it would not be the last time the Nemechek name would make history in Pensacola.
Joe’s son, John Hunter Nemechek, lifted the Tom Dawson Trophy over his head as Snowball Derby champion 25 years and one day after Joe lifted the All Pro Super Series championship trophy.
“It made me really proud,” Nemechek said of his son’s victory. “Again, Pensacola is just such a tough, tough race track. Looking back on the days I raced there and how hard it was for me, then to see him go there and win. What has been really exciting is that he’s been fast every time he’s shown up there. I mean, every time he’s shown up he’s had an opportunity to win. To me, that just says a lot about a driver. That’s one of the toughest tracks to get around and to figure out how to make your car go fast, and he’s been able to do it every time.”
Although Nemechek’s last Snowball Derby start came 28 years ago, he admitted that he’d love to one day have another shot at the big race if the stars aligned.
“I love driving race cars. I’m not done driving them but I’d love to continue to run some Truck races, Cup races, XFINITY races, and yes get back in a Late Model. I did run a Late Model race a few years back at Milwaukee and had a blast. It just reminded me of the good old days on bias ply tires when you could get out there and slide around.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo credit: Bobby Foster Collection